Cheese curds from Ellsworth gain popularity outside Wisconsin

Posted February 15, 2017

Ellsworth is officially the cheese curd capital of Wisconsin, but its name is spreading beyond the state’s borders and may even head overseas.

The cheese curds are produced by the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.

In 1984, former Wisconsin State Gov. Anthony S. Earl proclaimed Ellsworth — which also is the seat of Pierce County — the cheese curd capital of Wisconsin. Over 30 years after receiving that title, the creamery continues to grow larger.

“Recently, we have received the trademark to ‘Cheese Curd Capital’ and we have been using that title since,” said Paul Bauer, chief executive officer of the Ellsworth Creamery.

The creamery started in 1910, but has only been making cheese curds since 1968.

“We produce around 170,000 pounds of cheese per day,” Bauer said. But, not all the cheese goes into making curds — yet, he said.

“We not only make cheese curds, but we also make 750 different kinds of cheeses, too,” added Bauer.

According to Bauer, cheese making has been around for thousands of years. Farmers are getting more proficient at farming and even though the cooperative creamery now has fewer members than earlier, they produce 50 percent more milk and have a higher premium milk product to work with.

Over the years the creamery’s co-op membership has been as high as 650 members, but now is less than 400, Bauer said.

Since the dairy industry is growing fast, new programs have been added at UW-River Falls to help keep up with demand, said Dean Van Galen, the chancellor of UW-River Falls.

“Ellsworth Creamery has been a big advocate of the university and our dairy plant renovation will give more opportunities to track with the dairy and cheese industry,” said Van Galen.

The popularity of cheese curds is growing not only in the U.S., but abroad, too.

China has been only of the biggest buyers for the creamery’s whey products and, now, also cheeses.

Last April, representatives from the creamery and other Wisconsin businesses; the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; and UW-River Falls went to China’s International Dairy Expo and Summit in Harbin in Heilongjiang Province. There they had opportunities to connect with people who are interested in expanding the cheese industry in China.

“We have been exploring our options with the Chinese market,” Bauer said. “We were first exposed to them when we went with UW-River Falls to their sister school in China at Zhejiang International University in Hangzhou. We learned a lot.”

At first the Chinese people didn’t care for the creamery’s breaded deep-fried cheese curds they brought with them, but after the Chinese realized they could make their own batter, cheese curds were a huge hit, Bauer said.

Back home the cheese curd phenomenon keeps growing.

“Cheese curds have now become our No. 1 seller,” said Siza Morgan, assistant manager of Pat’s Tap in Minneapolis. “On average we sell 600 orders of deep-fried cheese curds per week.”

Morgan added: “All of our cheese curds come from the Ellsworth Creamery.”

Pat’s Tap is a Green Bay Packers- and cheese-themed restaurant in the heart of Minneapolis. The owners are originally from Wisconsin.

“Our other top seller is our cheeseburger, which has a huge piece of grilled cheddar cheese on top of it. People are becoming more passionate about their cheese,” said Morgan.

The creamery has introduced new cheese curd items that are now hitting the market, such as cheese curd crumbles and flavored curds. The crumbles can be sprinkled on top of pizza or added to other food products like sausages.

Over 110,000 people visit the Ellsworth Creamery Store each year. Three-fourths of those visitors are from the Twin Cities, said Bauer.

“We are expanding into new added-value products. People will see cheese curds in more popular recognizable restaurant chains in the near future,” added Bauer.

The creamery is currently in the middle of a 28,000-foot expansion project.

Meanwhile, UW-River Falls plans to expand its cheese- and ice cream-making capabilities with the renovation of its current dairy plant.

“The dairy plant renovation is in the design stage and the university is working with the state and UW System officials. Tentatively, the estimated time completion for the dairy plant renovation is late 2018 or early 2019,” Van Galen said. The university has raised over $1.4 million towards the project thus far.

“The dairy industry is a $43 billion a year industry in Wisconsin,” Van Galen added, “and Wisconsin is the biggest cheese producer in the U.S.”